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No Streetcar Referendum, Says County Board Majority

By ARLnow.com - ARLNow.com

Wednesday - 6/18/2014, 10:45am  ET

County Board 2014 budget hearingThere will be no voter referendum on Arlington’s streetcar system, said a majority of Arlington County Board members in a coordinated PR blitz Tuesday afternoon.

County Board Chairman Jay Fisette, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada all read statements at Tuesday’s County Board meeting, stating opposition to a referendum on the streetcar and giving reasons why they support the $585 million project.

The Board members said they oppose using general obligation bonds to build the streetcar lines on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City. Rather, they expect to fund the streetcar with a mix of federal and state funds and with transportation-designated local business tax revenue.

“After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that I do not support a referendum on streetcar,” Fisette said in his statement. “Under Virginia law… a referendum question must be tied to a vote on General Obligation bonds — and it is my commitment that we will use zero homeowner-financed general obligation bonds to build the streetcar.”

Rendering of a streetcar along Columbia Pike“I will walk away from the project rather than violate that pledge,” Fisette continued.

(About $71 million of the expense will be shared with Fairfax County, since the Pike streetcar will extend to Skyline.)

Fisette also ruled out waiting for Virginia General Assembly authorization to hold an advisory referendum.

“The time has come to act, to move forward without delay to build a streetcar system,” Fisette said.

Hynes, meanwhile, refuted arguments that the streetcar will take money away from other community needs, like schools. She and Tejada cited a study that suggests the streetcar will generate $735 million in new take revenue, thanks to added development along the streetcar line, over a 30 year period.

Tejada said he only supported the Columbia Pike streetcar after the county put plans in place to retain 6,200 units of affordable housing along the Pike while adding 14,000 new residences.

“There are better ways than a referendum to address concerns people have about this project,” said Tejada.

The coordinated statements from Fisette, Hynes and Tejada were accompanied by pro-streetcar materials generated by county staff. Among them were a press release (below, after the jump) and a series of 30-second video commercials explaining reasons why the county is building the streetcar, including:

“The County needs to do a better job of communicating the clear benefits of the modern streetcar, and we will do better,” Fisette said in his statement. “I would ask Arlington residents to study and learn about the issue — to go beyond the sound bites and give the matter the full consideration that this community always gives important issues.”

Apparently no one communicated anything about the referendum statements to Board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt. Garvey and Vihstadt, who oppose the streetcar and advocate instead for enhanced bus service, both expressed surprise at the statements.

“Reasonable people… can differ about whether to hold a referendum, and whether the streetcar itself is worthwhile,” said Vihstadt, who then spoke of his reelection in the fall. “Fortunately there are other ways that the voters are able to express themselves on this issue, including elections in which candidates stand for office. There will be another such opportunity in November and the people look forward to it.”

Vihstadt, who was elected as an independent candidate, will face Democrat Alan Howze in the fall. Howze expressed support for a streetcar referendum last month.

Garvey said the her three colleagues’ coordinated anti-referendum announcement “wasn’t expected,” but ad-libbed a response anyway.

“Where I come from, when we’re passionate about issues, there’s way to solve that, and it’s with a vote,” she said. “I think that’s how a democracy works. “

“Property taxes will still go up to pay for streetcar,” Garvey said, arguing that funding mechanisms for the streetcar will take away tax revenue from elsewhere in the county’s budget. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s no such thing as a free streetcar.”

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